State’s produce program for SNAP participants in jeopardy

  • Maggie Ranen bags washed mixed greens at Simple Gifts Farm. The farm is one of many in the Valley to participate in the state’s Healthy Incentives Program, through which SNAP participants are reimbursed for purchases of locally grown fruits and vegetables. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, March 08, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — The overwhelming success of a state program that reimburses SNAP participants for purchases of locally grown fruits and vegetables may mean its end.

The Healthy Incentives Program is set to be suspended in April, just a year into its planned three-year run. In response, farmers, healthy food advocates and program coordinators are pushing to secure $6.2 million in funding from the governor’s fiscal 2019 budget to reinstate the program in July and are also working to get $1.5 million from a supplemental budget to keep HIP running through April, May and June.

Winton Pitcoff, the director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which leads and monitors HIP, said no program like it had been done before in the country, so it was difficult to figure out what the demand would be.

“It just took everyone by surprise,” he said of HIP’s success. “It demonstrated a lot about the local food economy in Massachusetts and demonstrated that low-income families really do care about what they eat and what they feed their families.”

Implemented in April 2017, the program provides monthly incentives of $40-$80, depending on family size, to match purchases of local fruits and vegetables dollar-for-dollar at farm stands, farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture programs.

Through HIP, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, are able to use their electronic benefit cards at participating local retailers. The amount spent at farms and farmer’s markets is then rebated back onto the card to be used for necessities elsewhere.

Pitcoff said the original estimates allocated $1.25 million for the program per year, for three years. The latest numbers, he said, show that SNAP participants spent $3.6 million on fresh, local produce in less than a year, far outstripping any expectations. In fact, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance, the program exceeded budget expectations by 800 percent.

The program is administered by the DTA, in partnership with the Department of Agricultural Resources and the Department of Public Health, and was originally funded in part by a federal grant from the USDA following a successful 2011 pilot program in Hampden County.

Funding requests

Pitcoff said the program is also seeking private funding and watching the federal level to see if another such grant might be available, but he said there has been strong support in the state Legislature and particularly the western Mass. delegation for the program. He’s hopeful it will be fully funded by the state, along with the supplemental budget request of $1.5 million to avoid a suspension of the program this spring.

He said advocates of the program organized a lobby day at the Statehouse on Thursday and gave a western Mass.-grown oregano plant to each legislator who supports HIP.

Jeremy Barker Plotkin, owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, said that before his organic farm received the machine for SNAP participants to begin using their benefits, three or four people would come in per day to ask about the program.

Since he received the EBT machine last July, he estimates that twice as many people have enrolled in SNAP payment for CSA shares and he’s had some $15,000 in business from program participants over the last seven months.

He’s hopeful the program will receive the funding it needs to start again this summer, but he also wishes there was a way to bridge the gap between April and July. He said the gap might cause people to get out of the habit of going to their local farm stand or CSA.

“I really hope that the Legislature and the governor are able to come up with something to fully fund the program and bridge that gap, because the program really has been a huge win-win for both farmers and our food insecure neighbors,” he said.

Nearly 1,000 users

There are some 986 participating households in Hampshire County, according to data from the DTA. The data shows Hampshire County SNAP participants spent $89,420 on incentivized local produce through HIP as of Feb. 13, and the 26 participating farms located in Hampshire County sold $104,445 worth of produce in that time.

“The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) is committed to targeting food insecurity in the Commonwealth and looks forward to resuming the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) for the summer farmers’ market season,” a DTA spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Gazette. “Although the program will be temporarily suspended from mid-April until July, SNAP recipients continue to have access to healthy fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets, farm stands and their local grocery store.”

Hundreds of organizations and farms have signed a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee supporting the program and asking that it be fully funded. Among them are statewide organizations such as AARP Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Health Council.

A number of local Hampshire County organizations and farmers have also signed on in support, including the Amherst Food Co-op, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield and Grow Food Northampton, a community farm and farmer’s market providing for low-income families.

Michael Skillicorn, the director of programs for Grow Food Northampton, said HIP has allowed for other healthy food incentive programs to expand and streamline services.

“There are some other options, but what we would happen is we would revert to a patchwork of communities who are able to provide programs like Grow Food Northampton,” he said. “Many communities simply don’t have those programs.”

The Northampton Survival Center’s name is on the list too and program director Sarah Pease said it’s important for the program to be funded and stay funded, as a suspension could erode the trust of a vulnerable community.

“There are two losses: one is that people will likely be consuming less fresh produce, and that’s absolutely a loss for the health of the community, and the other is a loss for the farmers who are loving the extra business,” she said. “My concern is if it goes away and comes back, people will be less likely to trust it. That’s one of the reasons we work very hard to make sure folks never have to worry that our pantry won’t be full.”

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who is the vice-chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, said the program has been very innovative and has his full support.

He said the committee is currently considering the supplemental budget request to keep the program going through July and said there have been many strong arguments made in support, which he said the Legislature is listening to closely.

He added that the $6.2 million being requested for fiscal 2019 is a “a good number to strive for,” but said there are hundreds of other worthy programs that must be balanced in the budget too.

“It’s been a victim of its own success,” he said of HIP. “It’s been so heavily utilized and expended funds so much more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. It does tell us that the program has been well responded to and well utilized.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.